Maxwell Stephens

Getting Job References from Previous Employers: What Should Be on Them?

Most times someone leaves a job, they’re still on good terms with their board of directors, managers, and colleagues. There’s no doubt that the shared and mutual respect for the leaving employee is strong and their soon-to-be-former managers wish them well in their future career.

Seeing as many CVs as we do at Maxwell Stephens, many of our candidates have worked in three roles at different companies over the last 15 years. Given the fluid nature of the FM job market, the people that are there who can give a leaving employee a reference now may well not be there in a few months’ or a few years’ time because they’ve moved on themselves.


In that case, how do you go about proving the worth and value you gave to that company if there are no eyewitnesses left who can testify to it?


A reference letter is a permanent document of record


A reference letter is a document you organise with your employer and manager before you leave which details what you did at a particular company and when.


Ideally, a reference letter is like a business message from someone in a specific position to another person in the same position somewhere else.


So, if an employee is answerable to a project manager in the company they’re leaving, that’s the person who should write it. This project manager will be able to write in a style and using words another project manager will appreciate, highlighting in a way that the reader would understand the qualities and achievements of the employee.


What goes in your reference letter


Alison Doyle, the highly-regarded career expert, writing on The Balance, that your letter should include…


“• Dates of employment

• The position held

• The company name

• Job responsibilities

• Qualifications

• Strengths and Abilities

• Contact Information”


That’s great. But don’t think that your involvement with the letter stops with finding someone who’s happy to write it to that structure. This reference letter will be, for years to come, a personal recommendation of you and your professionalism.


Give your guidance on what you want to appear in the letter


No-one knows your career, your abilities or your successes better than you. It will help the person writing it to jot down for them some of the things you want them to mention in your letter. This also means that you have a much greater chance of ensuring that the letter itself better reflects what you want future employers to know.


Fleshing the letter out


The letter should begin with a brief explanation of who is writing the letter, which company they work for and the job title they hold. The credibility of the writer of the letter needs to be established from the off.


The second paragraph then needs to describe your dates of employment, your job title, and how long you and the writer of the letter have worked together.


In FM roles, there are often pages and pages of job responsibilities that are part of a specific position. The goal for the reference letter is not to force the reader to understand in microscopic detail every aspect of what you do for an employer. One paragraph, two at the maximum, will be more than enough. Stick to describing the parts of the job that carried most responsibility.

Many FM roles we fill here at Maxwell Stephens require either membership of a professional body and qualifications up to a certain level. Prompt your writer to include them in your letter.


For your strengths and abilities, Rebecca Safier of PrepScholar recommends including “two to three body paragraphs with specific anecdotes about the candidate (which) give examples and prove to a prospective employer that s/he’s made achievements in the past that predict future success.” Again, the key here is not to make it too long but always make it interesting.


Brevity is clarity


If you succeed in getting all of the above in your letter, it’s going to be incredibly useful both during the application and interview process. Ideally, the person reading the letter should take no more than 90-120 seconds. Every word should justify its place on the letter.


Drafting the letter


Quite often, writing letters is a skill most people don’t feel that comfortable with. If they do, great. Ask them to send you a first draft and keep working on the letter until you’re happy with it.

Another alternative is, once someone has agreed to have their name on your letter, is to draft it yourself and send it to your referee. Ask them if they’re happy with what you’ve written and, in a reverse of the process in the previous paragraph, keep sending it back and forth between you until your referee is happy with it.


Being fully prepared for interviews


If you can get a referral letter, especially given the fluid nature of the FM jobs market in the last few years, great. It’s always something you can use to your advantage when you’re trying to find a new role.


If you want to talk about this subject, or any subject that helps you get the role you want, please call Maxwell Stephens on 0207 118 48 48 or email 


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